Stretching Forward

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From the very beginning of my India trip, I knew I wanted to end up in an ashram.

As I mentioned in my “Reflections” post, learning to meditate and improving my yoga practice were personal goals of mine, and I figured what better way to attain them than to spend a concentrated amount of time in a spiritual community in, arguably, the most spiritual place on earth.

When I learned about the Sivananda yoga ashram, (technically, the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres), I thought it sounded perfect. Chanting, meditation and four hours of yoga practice a day, it seemed just what I was looking for. The fact that it was having a special holiday program and I would be able to celebrate Christmas in some aspect was just an added bonus.

Little did I know the effect those five days at Sivananda would have on me, both physically and spiritually.

Situated outside Trivandrum in Neyyar Dam, Kerala in southern India, the Sivananda yoga ashram was everything you’d imagine an ashram to be. Lush vegetation and fruit trees covered the complex, interspersed with the occasional statue of Shiva, Ganesh or Vishnu. An open two-story hall formed the center of the ashram, providing us space for our yoga practice as well as the setting for our meditation, chanting and cultural shows. While the bottom floor was fairly simple, used almost exclusively for yoga, the top floor was quite rich. Paintings of colorful deities lined the walls, facing each other, while statues of the ashram’s founders and gurus, Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnusdevananda, and other statues rested on stage in front, covered in orange cloaks. Just outside, a staircase led to a small woods of thick green trees, opening to reveal a quiet lake shimmering in the sun. Just outside the lake opening, life-sized statues depicting Sivananda’s 12 signature yoga postures created a space to keep visitors focused on the task at hand. Calm, beautiful and utterly connected with nature, Sivananda’s was perfect.

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As a yoga ashram, the focus of life at Sivananda’s was yoga (duh). Though our daily schedule included four hours of asana (postures) practice, Sivananda embraced a more holistic yoga lifestyle which also included daily meditation and chanting, self-less service (chores) and a vegetarian diet. Our day started every morning at 6 a.m. with an hour and a half of meditation and chanting before our first two-hour yoga class at 8 a.m. Around 10:30 a.m., we were served the first of our two meals a day, usually a variation of rice surrounded by mild chutneys and vegetables, served with water. (Let me tell you, exercising four hours a day with only two meals, you learn quickly how to pack in the carbs when you get the chance. Lucky for us, the food was delicious.) Free time for chores, private yoga coaching or special cultural workshops followed breakfast, before resuming with our second yoga class at 4 p.m. The day continued with dinner and more meditation and chanting, before ending with our special holiday cultural performance in the evening.

After months of spotty yoga practice, lucky if I was doing a class once every two weeks, I had no idea how I’d survive four hours of class a day. But surprisingly, it was amazing. Eating and sleeping little, exercising constantly, I felt incredible. Even after just a couple days I could feel my body getting stronger with more energy and endurance. But the best part of all was the mood. Despite the inevitable aches and pains, I was so happy, along with everyone around me. As cheesy and hippie-ish as it sounds, there seemed to be an overflow of positive energy in the ashram, as if everyone’s endorphins were working together to create a perpetual happy place. No TV, no junk food, no contact with the outside world, and I was running high.

Normally, Sivananda offers mandatory Hinduism classes between yoga practice, but since I came during the holiday cultural program, philosophy classes were replaced with workshops on native Keralan singing, dancing and art. While I enjoyed these programs immensely, I was a little disappointed to have lost my opportunity to study Hinduism properly, especially since the ashram marked the end of my India trip. But after having spent nearly three months in India, I had picked up a few things and enjoyed discussing philosophy with those around me.

And then I met Gloria (another one). High energy, to the point and sarcastic, Gloria from “New Yowk” seemed to be your stereotypical New Yorker. But perhaps unstereotypically, she was also a Sivananda yoga teacher. One day over tea, I asked her what she thought about Hinduism, and whether or not she thought they actually believe in all those different gods or if, essentially, they were just different manifestations of the same being. Her answer was one of the most interesting perspectives I’ve found.

In Gloria’s understanding, Hindu deities represent different aspects of one God. The different personalities, she said, help people find a specific aspect of God with whom he or she can relate and that specific manifestation is the one best to lead that person to God.

When I thought about it, I realized that nearly all Hindus I knew had one particular deity to whom they prayed, and in meditation, we were asked to recite our mantra, picture our God or, at the very least, focus on the basic, all-encompassing sound, “om.”

In Gloria’s case, she favored Shiva, who she considered a modern day “rock star” and found super bad ass. In my case, however, she had a different idea.

“I don’t see you with one of those pansy gods about beauty or something,” she said. “You’re quite fiery. I see you with somebody with a weapon.”

That was, quite possibly, one of the coolest compliments I’ve ever gotten 🙂 (I think).

While I still don’t know who my own personal deity might be, I got to thinking that maybe Gloria was right. Maybe there really is just one God, but throughout the changing cultures and histories of the world, he has just come to manifest himself in different ways.

In fact, there are even theories that Jesus spent his “lost years” in India as a Buddhist disciple. While it may sound blasphemous, there are suggestions that Jesus might have had some East-leaning beliefs, which may have just gotten altered through the centuries in the West. The gnostic gospels, for instance, like the Gospel of Thomas, tend to have a much more mystical focus on self-enlightenment and realization.

I don’t care to go into all of that here, but it does make me think that maybe all these different religions, when boiled down to the core, are essentially the same. Maybe there isn’t just one way, but numerous paths and figures to reach him. For some, that figure is Jesus. For others, Buddha, or even Amma, provide the answers. Still, maybe the path to enlightenment is through Shiva, Ganesh, Laksmi or any other of the several million Hindu deities. And maybe there’s more to come.

Twenty-seven years of religious study and soul-searching, and I still cannot pretend to know all the answers. And honestly, I don’t know if I ever will. But I will say now, after seven years of borderline atheism, I’m starting to have faith again.

I like the peacefulness of meditation, I like the strength and focus I get through yoga, and I like the idea that, maybe somewhere, there is an ultimate being who is looking out for us. Maybe, at the end of the day, what I’ve regained is hope.

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